SYRACUSE -- For 21 students in Jordan Denos' AP biology class at Syracuse High School, spring break was not about sleeping in, slaying video-game villains or forgetting lessons learned during the previous term.
No. Spring break, earlier this month, was about traveling to the Catalina Island Marine Institute for five days of science camp, kayaking with dolphin escorts and swimming with 50 or so leopard sharks, as well as learning the hard way not to taunt a sports-challenged bison.
"There are different activities schools have for sports teams and band trips, but I really haven't seen anything for kids who are more academically oriented," said Denos, who teaches the school's advanced placement biology class for juniors and seniors.
"I've taught a lot of marine biology, but Utah is a place where you don't get hands-on experience. So I found this opportunity that seemed financially doable, and I thought it would be a good experience for students to see different jobs out there in the science world."
The first-period class has more than 40 students, Denos said, but many students had schedule conflicts or were not interested in the spring-break trip.
Denos capped the trip at 21 students and started doing his research on travel and camp costs. Camp tuition was about $80 per day per student, and fundraising began for interested students who could not afford the trip.
"Of our 21 students, 13 got partial or full scholarships," Denos said. "Ten got pretty substantial scholarships from local sources. Our local businesses and the community really stepped up."
As did Denos, who paid costs for two of his students.
"I believe in education, but I never planned on being a teacher," Denos said. "Four years ago, I was about to go to medical school, and the district had a biology teacher quit the first day of school. I was asked to step in until it found a replacement."
As of fall quarter, Denos found himself playing travel agent. It turned out flying was cheaper than a bus, so Denos booked students on a flight that for many would be the first of their life.
Conner Larsen, 17, of West Point, said she initially saw the trip as a way to spend spring break at the beach.
"I just wanted to go to the ocean," she said. "I thought I could spend time on the beach. And we did do some of that, but we did so much more, and we learned so many interesting things."
Catalina Island is about 22 miles off the shore of Southern California, south-southwest of Long Beach. Once at the Marine Institute, students settled in for a rigorous schedule of learning, labs and sea-related activities.
"I learned a lot more than I thought I would," said Cylee Gorringe, 17, of West Point. "We learned about animals at different depths of the ocean. We snorkeled with a big group of leopard sharks."
Cylee guessed there were about 50 sharks, a few almost as large as the students. Leopard sharks are considered to be nonaggressive and are much more likely to flee than to pick a fight.
"I was a little bit scared. Once I went through it, I was fine."
Another favorite activity was paddling two-person sea kayaks.
"There were tons of dolphins, hundreds," Cylee said. "There were sea lions. They were just playful, jumping around and curious about us."
Brayden Bouwmeester, 16, of West Point, enjoyed night snorkeling.
"It was pitch black. A 5-foot bat ray swam right into our path, and it was huge. There was algae that would light up, lime green, if you moved your hand through the water. There were millions of them."
Students uses glow sticks to light their paths. Below them, they spotted silent sea life, including giant crabs.
So where, in all of this, does the bison figure in?
Seems that, on one of the island trips, a student threw a football that landed near a bison, a descendent of bison released on the island after a 1925 film shoot there. Daniel Silvester, 17, of West Point, ran to retrieve the ball and faked a pass at the bison before turning back toward fellow students.
"I started walking away, then I saw everyone running away," Daniel said. "The rangers throw rocks at the buffaloes to get them to move away from people, so I thought a football would be OK. The buffalo charged me, but it stopped when I ran."
Tanner Tremea, 17, of West Point, said his favorite sessions were the science labs. "We got to feed and touch baby sharks.
"We put our arms in the water, and put food, which was squid, in front of baby leopard sharks. I liked that, and I liked looking at the stars. We got to eat a piece of algae," he said.
"The trip made me love biology even more. I think this will steer my life more in a science direction. Before the trip, I wanted to be a bodyguard. Now I want to learn all I can about marine biology."